World·Analysis

'The last 100 days': How a lame-duck Obama presidency might play out

The past week saw U.S. President Barack Obama being insulted by the leader of the Philippines, still without a Syrian ceasefire deal with Russia, and apparently being snubbed by China in a protocol snafu. Is the president officially no longer the most important politician in the room?

Amid apparent snubs in Asia, Obama 'doesn’t have any leverage' left but can lay groundwork for Clinton

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives on Air Force One at Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province on Sept. 3, 2016. China may have made an artful snub with a snafu over the stairs. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Spare a thought for U.S. President Barack Obama. Being commander in chief isn't what it used to be.

The past week saw him being cursed at by the leader of the Philippines, leaving empty-handed on a Syrian ceasefire deal with Russia, and apparently being snubbed by China in a lapse of protocol.

It's hard to say when, over the course of his second term, Obama changed from lion of democracy abroad to a lame-duck head of state. To scholars on presidential powers, though, a level of perceived discourtesy afforded to him during last week's G20 summit in Asia was the clearest sign yet that his global authority is waning.

Gone, it seemed, was the geopolitical deference Obama once enjoyed on these trips. It was replaced with a narrative about China's lack of decorum involving a missing staircase.

Where are the stairs?

Unlike other foreign leaders in Hangzhou, Obama was not supplied with a set of stairs with which to depart Air Force One on Saturday. Instead, he walked out from the underbelly of the plane. The White House played down the episode as a logistical blunder involving language barriers. (Officials later supplied a staircase for him when he left China.)
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with President Barack Obama ahead of the G20 summit. The Chinese may have been flexing their muscles on the international stage. (How Hwee Young/Reuters)

Later, his meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on a Syrian ceasefire proved fruitless.

But the weirdest indignity involved the Philippines. Obama's meeting with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte was cancelled after he called Obama a "son of a whore." (Duterte has since expressed regret for his remarks, insisting they weren't personal.)

He'll start to speak on broader themes to try to set the agenda for the future. "This is what we ought to do; this is the world I envision"- Dan Franklin, Georgia State University

Personal affronts or not, the new cold, hard reality is this: With just four-and-half months to go until he leaves office on Jan. 20, 2017, the outgoing president may no longer be regarded as the most important politician in the room.

If it was a dim concept before, then "after this week, the lightbulb will be turned on," says Dan Franklin, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.

He'll realize 'his limitations'

"The writing's on the wall. He'll realize what his limitations are, and what his options are," says Franklin, whose book, Pitiful Giants: Presidents in Their Final Terms, follows the productivity of five American presidents who have served two terms.

"He'll start to speak on broader themes to try to set the agenda for the future. 'This is what we ought to do; this is the world I envision.' And here's a guy who's got eight years of experience and a job few living people have experienced."

Obama won't be without certain powers, even in the face of a Republican-controlled Congress. It wouldn't be surprising to see him issue more proclamations and executive orders, though it's likely too late to achieve some lofty domestic goals, Franklin says.

Even so, he doesn't expect any 11th-hour "Hail Mary" diplomatic plays — a move he says was favoured by George W. Bush, who led the U.S. into the calamitous 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Bill Clinton, whose presidency was marred by an extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky and charges of perjury.

"Every president tries to negotiate peace in the Middle East on their way out. Clinton tried it; Bush tried it," Franklin says. "That's a dramatic thing to restore the reputation of an administration."

No sense of failure

Obama, by contrast, "doesn't see his administration as a failure."

With regard to foreign policy, though, "it's hard to make any progress because he really doesn't have any leverage," Franklin says.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou, but Putin is biding his time on Syria. (Associated Press)

That would give a leader like Putin no reason to bother negotiating with Obama on a Syrian ceasefire. But the issue runs much deeper, says Rajan Menon, a professor at City College of New York and a specialist on U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations.

"Putin is much too savvy. That's not how he operates," he says, adding that Russia is not likely to want to engage with Turkey on the ceasefire deal until the Syrian regime regains control over rebel-held Aleppo, the country's largest city.

"There's no reason Putin would wait until Clinton takes office in January [to reengage in ceasefire talks]. A lot of things could happen by then, and he's a pragmatist."

On the domestic front, it's hard to imagine  legislators being keen to vote on bills to get in with a departing president. There's "virtually no chance" of any significant legislation going through that way, says Kenneth Mayer, an expert on presidential powers at the University of Wisconsin's Lafollette School of Public Affairs.

So lame-duck presidents tend to embark on largely "symbolic" international trips.

China flexing its muscles

"This [Asian] trip is a valedictory trip that presidents do on their last term," Mayer says. "It gives them an opportunity to have a significant presence."

This might have been a way for China to flex its muscle internationally, to stand up to an American president- Kenneth Mayer,  Lafollette School of Public Affairs.

He wonders whether any American president — lame duck or not — might have encountered the same diplomatic snafus in China, particularly at a time when China may want to be demonstrating its status as a rising superpower.

"This might have been a way for China to flex its muscle internationally, to stand up to an American president," Mayer says.

A popular question during U.S. presidential elections is what the next aspiring leader plans to do in her or his first 100 days in office. William Howell, a professor with the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, has long been more interested in studying "the last 100 days."

Is TPP last big fight?

"What Obama is likely seeing is what's left on the agenda? And it's not gun control, it's the TPP — that's his last big fight," Howell says of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation free-trade deal that has been considered an economic capstone of his second term.

"He's running around the globe trying to secure some details. There's lingering stuff on climate change, on TPP, and he's going to take a shot at these things," Howell says. "He's just not going to be as successful, not as he was seven years ago."

What determines Obama's next steps may also hinge on who's likely to succeed him in November, notes Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has briefed the president on Northeast Asian matters. If Obama anticipates a Clinton victory, his policy objectives may be steered towards laying down a foundation from which she can build. If it looks like Trump will win, Obama may devote his energies towards securing past political gains.

"Either way," Pollack says, "one of his biggest priorities when he returns from this trip is clear: To do everything he can to ensure Hillary Clinton is elected president."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong